fiction by Richard Thomas
I hear cars outside on the street, the world slipping by, and I wonder how I got here. Accident, what does that word mean—random, unintentional? Accidental. Accidents. We all have them. I’m having them all the time now.
An innocent phone call led to a deafening silence to a morgue in a concrete bunker that I never knew existed. Every detail made my hands shake, my head throb, the officer with his hand on my shoulder, his fingers gripping into my dead muscle, the black bags pulled back one by one, each one worse than the previous devastating knowledge.
My wife was first, asleep on the cold metal, the gash across her head the only obvious sign of the violence that started my undoing.
“You okay?” the man asked. He kept asking it over and over.
The twins were next, still in grade school when the minivan skidded off the icy road, barely in second grade.
My son, a lump on the side of his head, a seam running up the front of his chest, his tiny ribcage, and I thought of birds, wanting to get out, trying to push against the bars, and I turned and vomited into a plastic trash can that the man standing next to me held out. A cop, the morgue guy, I can’t remember who he really was. I try not to think about it.
My daughter, I only had to look at her hand, the pink fingernails, with Hello Kitty appliqués looking up at me, forlorn.
“Don’t pull it back. Please.” I asked. But he did anyway. And everything went dark.
That was the first accident, the one that started it all. Left to my own devices I started to drink, whatever was in the house, everything, all of it, until the next thing I knew I came to flying down the highway at eighty miles an hour.
That’s never a good thing.
It took me awhile to start calling people. I just couldn’t muster the strength. It wasn’t real to me—I didn’t want to own it. But eventually I started calling family—mothers and grandmothers, brothers and sisters, all of it painful until it stopped being anything but a headache, a tension in my gut, snakes uncoiling inside me. They started showing up and I went through the motions, the crying and the hugging, and eventually they faded away, back to their cities and lives, afraid to catch what I had brewing inside me. I understood. I welcomed their departures. The insurance check came in and I quit my job, not that I had been going, and decided to drink myself to death. It seemed like the right thing to do.
It was an easy choice, barreling down the highway, flashers in the rear view mirror, and little left that mattered. All I had to do was pull the wheel hard to the left, and the moment the thought entered my head, I did it. Maybe it was an accident, a twitch.
The tires squealed, and the car flipped over, blackness wrapping around me, a smile pushing across my face, dots of white light—my head making contact with something. I wanted this, wished it to be over, the sickening momentary panic of my head being crushed, the sense that this was more pain and more serious than anything I’d ever experienced, that revelation flashed across my mind, and then everything winked out.
A hospital, several tickets, uniforms in blue, uniforms in white. I couldn’t do this right either, the seatbelt saving my life, a life I had no interest in saving. A new word was bandied about the room, as I drifted in and out, pain radiating out of my misshapen skull, broken fingers, broken legs, broken ribs. The word of the day was “lucky” and it made me laugh until blood sprayed out of my mouth, a coughing fit, and then they pushed me back under with meds and hands on my cold flesh, and the pale outline of my daughter standing next to the bed, shaking her head slowly back and forth, disappointed in my reckless behavior.
Amy and Robb were friends, people I used to work with. Amy was a slightly overweight, loud-mouthed blonde who made me laugh. She was always placing her hand on my forearm, always touching me. I didn’t mind it so much now. Robb wore glasses and a black Kangol hat, skinny and pale, a moustache and goatee giving him the odd appearance of a foreign filmmaker, or perhaps an unemployed mime. They came to visit me in the hospital, and followed up with random drop-ins at the house, forgiving in their judgment, bringing chicken wings and beer, absorbing my pain, listening with tight lips and barely nodding heads as I told them about my shadow daughter, and the recent reappearance of my cat.
“It’s stress,” Amy offered. “You’re just dealing with it all, processing. I’m sure it’s nothing.”
Robb nodded, sipping at his beer. “Yeah, stress. I’m sure that’s all it is.
I didn’t tell them about the day before when I walked past my daughter’s room and saw her and my son playing on the floor, a bucket of Lego pieces scattered across the carpet, a brick wall built up in an array of colors, repeatedly running a tiny Lego car into the solid structure they’d built, over and over again. They looked up at me, and moved their lips and I stumbled over my own feet, moving past them without looking back, unable to mouth the words “I love you” in return.
I would tell Amy and Robb about that moment. I would tell them about my wife appearing in my bed, her arms wrapping around me, pressing her cold flesh up against my bare backside, her hand reaching around to rub my chest, nibbling at my neck, unable to stop her. I would tell them about all of this, about my dead wife turning me on, her hands wrapped around my cock, stroking me as her breasts pressed against my back, my eyes squeezed shut, pretending it was all a dream. When I washed the sheets later that day, I sobbed and bent over the washing machine, afraid to go back to bed.
I told them all of this because I couldn’t keep it to myself.
“I’ve had worse wet dreams,” Robb mused. “Don’t get me started. Clowns, old grade school teachers, a cousin I barely know, fairies farting sparks of glitter when they came.”
Over time, they started to believe me. They muttered things about long-lost relatives, ex-boyfriends who overdosed, bored with their lives, their office jobs and life in the suburbs. I laughed about my head injury, laughed about my visions. And as the nights expanded and the conversations continued, they would place their hands on my forehead, the bruise and the lump fading, making mental notes about the exact location.
When I told them about my son, his worried look, the note he left me scrawled in the foggy mirror of the bathroom one morning, the numbers 8 22 32 44 64 pushed together in his tiny fingered script, they swallowed their beer and leaned back onto the couch. They were always here now—this was better than watching TV, better than hanging out at some seedy bar. I was spending money on food and drink, plowing through it, buying a new car, and my ghost of a son was worried about the money. I spent some cash on a Little Lotto ticket, and collected $4,235.26 the following day. It wasn’t much, but as he leaned over my head, pushing my hair out of the way, in the same way that I used to tuck him in, he told me that I didn’t want any attention. Small steps, he whispered, pressing his damp lips onto my forehead, and I fell asleep shaking and cold.
The first thing we did was cut all of the seatbelts out of my new car. It pained me to do this to a brand new Mustang, but it made sense—no chickens in this ride. I was trying to get out, and they were trying to get in. I’d look in the rearview mirror at Amy and Robb, giddy as two kids heading off for ice cream, and shake my head.
“My brother,” Amy said, one night on the couch, one of many lost nights that we spent talking about this new endeavor. “He died in high school. Ironically, in a car accident, drunk as a skunk,” she said. “I want to see him again.”
“My first wife killed herself,” Robb said, swallowing another beer, head bowed. “I need to talk to her, I have questions. I need to say I’m sorry,” he mumbled.
I understood. It wasn’t the money—I shared the numbers that my flickering son whispered in my ear, we cashed in our tickets for a couple grand here or there, every once in awhile a bigger score, ten grand or more. We couldn’t keep winning, he told me that, we had to drive to Indiana, or up to Wisconsin, spread it around, and take turns buying the tickets. It wasn’t about the money. We had nobody to share our spoils with anyway. We were three loners connected by the thrill of doing something that nobody else could do.
I looked into the back seat as I accelerated up the entrance ramp onto the highway.
“You’re just going to end up dead,” I yelled.
They held hands and smiled. On the seat next to me my wife sat in shadow, her face away from me, staring out the window into the night. Silver tears ran dirty paths down her cheeks, a weary smile crooked across her face. She didn’t want me to join them on the other side. And yet, she did. The rules. Who knew what they were? I only knew that the pale imitation of life that I held onto with my weak grip—it didn’t mean anything to me anymore. On either side of Amy and Robb, the twins sat somber, frightened by it all, eyes on me, and yet unable to really look at me, wanting me to hold them again, to feel my warmth, but afraid to ask me to do this, the violence a terrifying unknown.
We were sober, tonight, facing this obstacle head on. I punched the gas on the new Mustang, the pang in my stomach the only bit of life left in me. I wanted her to say no, my wife, but she didn’t say anything. I wanted the kids to say we’ll wait for you—we’ll be here whenever you get here, twenty years down the road. But they didn’t say those words.
I pushed us out into the night, my wife’s cold hand resting on my thigh, and I pulled the steering wheel to the left, looking up into the rearview mirror, Robb’s mouth open, as if poised to say something, his eyebrows arched mid-question. Amy’s eyes were glassy and distant, far away, knowing that one way or another she’d see her brother soon. And my daughter, her head down, unable to face me, my son with his hands in his lap, they looked up in unison, a slow grin spreading across their distorted features, a secret held in their mouths—and the car flipped us over and into the great beyond.
Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of three novels, three short story collections, 135+ stories in print, and the editor of four anthologies. Visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com for more information.
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 25, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.